New Albany High School senior Mark Damante loves hockey and hopes to play professionally one day.
But he recently discovered a new passion for the sport after learning about Ohio Sled Hockey, a nonprofit organization that supports a competitive junior hockey team for children with physical disabilities.
Damante, 17, said he visited New Albany High School's clinical assistant, Kelly Fenster, following a hockey injury. While talking with her, he learned her son Michael, 13, a New Albany seventh-grader, plays sled hockey.
"I didn't really know about it," Damante said.
Ohio Sled Hockey provides hockey equipment, practice time and tournament play for players ages 6 to 26 with spina bifida, paralysis, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. They push themselves on sleds, using the butt of a shortened version of a hockey stick, flipping the stick around to use the blade and shoot the puck.
Michael Fenster said he started learning the game when he was a toddler.
"The first time I competed, I was 5, and my first tournament was in Canada," he said.
Damante said he wanted to help support Ohio Sled Hockey, so he organized a fundraiser in December featuring a sled-hockey scrimmage between members of his Ohio AAA Blue Jackets hockey team and Michael Fenster's Ohio Sled Hockey team. It was hosted at the OhioHealth Ice Haus in downtown Columbus' Arena District.
"It was completely an eye-opener and I've been playing for 12 years now," Damante said. "I gave their sport a try and it's hard and physically demanding."
The experience has changed his life in several ways. Kelly Fenster, who also is a general manager for Ohio Sled Hockey, said Damante formed a special bond with her son.
"My son loves him dearly," she said. "They've made a great connection and it's given Marky (as he's known to friends) a great perspective on things, maybe even changing his route of what he'd like to do in college."
Damante said he he had considered other majors but now is interested in studying neuroscience in college.
"It comes from working with the kids in the sled hockey association," he said. "Most of them have injuries. There are double amputees, some who were born that way and can't walk. Some were paralyzed in accidents."
Michael Fenster was born without a tailbone, a condition called sacral agenesis, Kelly Fenster said. She said her son has never been able to walk.
Damante used the project to satisfy his senior seminar graduation requirement. To graduate from New Albany High School, seniors must research an idea and then create a product or service project.
Fenster said Damante's research paper on sacral agenesis was so well done, she learned things she didn't know about the condition.
"There are so many new studies out, and new diagnoses," she said. "I haven't done research on this since Michael was born."
Organizing the fundraiser was part of Damante's project. He said it took him about six months to schedule the event.
"We sold tickets and raffled off items," Damante said. "We were looking to donate it to buy new equipment (for Ohio Sled Hockey)."
New Albany High School teacher Ben Arthurs said Damante raised $700 from ticket sales and more than $800 from the raffle.
Damante said he worked with the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation on the fundraiser.
Kelly Fenster said Damante also got his teammates to donate some of their used equipment to the team.
"We are always looking for donations," she said. "We try to keep the cost free to all families, as much as possible.
"Each (team member) has medical bills and we don't want them (the families) to have to choose between a (medical) procedure or to play on the team."
She said equipment costs can total more than $2,000 per player. Sleds cost $900 to $1,100; sticks cost $80 to $180, depending the player's level; helmets cost $80 to $180; ice rental is $260 an hour; and tournament fees are $350 to $650 per team.
Damante said he will continue to work with Ohio Sled Hockey as long as he can.
"I want to continue to work with them as much as I can," he said.
Michael Fenster said he appreciates what Damante did for his team, which is now preparing for the National Disabled Sports Festival from March 21-24 in West Chester, Pa.
More information on Ohio Sled Hockey, which supports novice, junior, select and advanced teams in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, is available at ohiosledhockey.org.